There are many reasons to love San Francisco: the colorful street art and murals; the neverending list of must-try restaurants (getting reservations at Benu is still impossible); Mission Dolores Park; Exploratorium; Golden Gate Bridge — the list goes on and on. But sometimes you just want to get away, and luckily the city isn’t too far from many must-visit destinations. These road trips from San Francisco will leave you feeling refreshed, so by the time you come back, you’ll be ready to conquer your busy days ahead.
Searching for a romantic weekend getaway? Head to Carmel-by-the-Sea, a charming seaside town that’s about 122 miles south of San Francisco. Nestled along California’s central coast, Carmel is a European-style village that’s easy to explore on foot. Go on a self-guided historic walking tour to learn more about Carmel’s rich history.
If you want to add more steps to your weekend, stroll down the city’s famous Ocean Avenue, where you can visit an antique shop or grab a bite at a local eatery. For an intimate dining experience, we recommend making dinner reservations at Casanova, one of the city’s longest-running restaurants that serves Italian and French cuisines. Don’t forget to check out the many tasting rooms and wine bars that cover the one-square-mile village.
A four-mile drive from Carmel, Monterey is another city along the central coast that’s fun to explore on the weekends. Of course, there’s the beloved Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row — both of which are worth a visit, but keep in mind that these touristy locations can get busy. If you need a brief respite from the crowds, relax at a small cove called McAbee Beach behind Spindrift Inn.
Grab a late lunch at nearby Paprika Cafe, a casual Mediterranean eatery that’s become a local favorite, before swinging by the Sardine Factory for happy hour (from 5 to 6 p.m. and again at 9:30 to 10:30 p.m. daily) and live music courtesy of a piano player. Before the weekend ends, treat yourself to a spa treatment at Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa’s Vista Blue Spa and sit back on the spa’s rooftop sundeck.
If you’re looking for a peaceful paradise with magical ocean views, you’ll want to head to Big Sur, an area that stretches 90 miles between Carmel and San Simeon. Nature lovers will enjoy the secluded Pfeiffer Beach and the state parks, including the famous Julia Pfeiffer State Park, where you can see the mesmerizing McWay Falls. Another must-see? The iconic (and Insta-worthy) Bixby Bridge, a favorite landmark for locals and visitors alike.
One of the most popular dining options in Big Sur, Nepenthe is a family-owned restaurant that’s known for its famous ambrosia burger, award-winning wine list, and a sweeping view from its patio area. Consider splurging on a room at Ventana Big Sur or Post Ranch Inn — both luxurious adults-only hotels overlook the ocean, creating the most romantic and relaxing experience along the coastline.
Learn more about the state’s capital with a weekend road trip to Sacramento. Visit the California State Capitol, which serves as both a museum and the state’s working seat of government, and learn about the state’s rich history. Another museum worth checking out? Crocker Art Museum, which houses one of the state’s leading collections of California art. As its art collections continue to grow, Crocker has since expanded to a second building in 2010 from its Italianate mansion-style art gallery that opened in 1872.
Drive over to McKinley Park Rose Garden, where you can take a leisurely stroll and, uh, stop to smell the roses. Since Sactown is known as America’s farm-to-fork capital, check out the Soil Born Farms to learn more about urban farming and seasonal cooking. Hopefully, a visit will inspire you to grow your own groceries!
From San Francisco, Santa Cruz is about a 75-mile drive. Head over to the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which you probably already recognize from films like “The Lost Boys” (1987), “Bumblebee” (2018), and “Us” (2019), and ride the popular Giant Dipper Roller Coaster or hit up the Casino Arcade for skeeball and many other games. Interested in seeing the mountains in Santa Cruz County? Consider boarding the Redwood Forest Steam Train. For an hour and 15 minutes, a 19th-century steam train takes you through the redwood groves from Roaring Camp to Bear Mountain and back, with a conductor explaining the history of Roaring Camping.
A first-time trip to Santa Cruz isn’t complete without a visit to the Mystery Spot, which is described as a “gravitational anomaly.” You can purchase tickets at the door, but it does sell out during the weekends, so it’s wise to buy online first to guarantee your spot on one of its tours.
San Luis Obispo
Roughly a 232-mile drive from San Francisco, San Luis Obispo (a.k.a. SLO) is a laid-back town along the Central Coast of California. Check into the Madonna Inn, a kitschy motel that’s famous for its whimsical interiors and hot pink athletic courts. Every room comes with its own eclectic theme, from the “Rock Bottom” cave-like room to the in-your-face flower wallpaper “Floral Fantasy” room. SLO keeps it weird with the Bubblegum Alley, a popular tourist attraction filled with nearly two million pieces of chewed gum in the alleyway of Higuera Street (between Garden and Broad streets). Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy Bishop Peak, a rocky hiking trail that provides a sweeping view of the city and the nearby ancient volcanic peaks known as the Morros or “Nine Sisters.” End your evening in downtown SLO with a casual BBQ dinner at Firestone Grill before catching a live performance or film at the historic Fremont Theater.